Director spotlight: Wong Kar-Wai
With specific praise for, In the Mood for Love, Austin Taylor discusses three of his favourite films by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai
One of the most popular Asian directors with a vast influence on modern film, Wong Kar-wai will be no stranger to film fans but is, nonetheless, a cult director, often overlooked by Western audiences. Wong Kar-wai was born in Shanghai in 1958 and moved to Hong Kong in ’63 –– a region of China set to transform over the coming decades into “Asia’s world city”. There, with the likes of Stanley Kwan, Mabel Cheung, and Alex Law, Wong grew into the second generation of directors during Hong Kong’s “new wave”. These directors made films that were markedly more informed by the contemporary cinema of the West than had been the case with the kung fu and wuxia films of the 1970s. Wong Kar-wai’s directorial career began with the 1988 triad film, As Tears Go By, and reached a high point in the culturally significant years between Chungking Express (1994) and 2046 (2004), during which Hong Kong transitioned from British to Chinese rule. Below are a few of his most notable films.
Wong Kar-wai will be no stranger to film fans but is, nonetheless, a cult director, often overlooked by Western audiences
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Days of Being Wild marks the first of Wong’s many collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle; his lush, smoky blue-green shots of 1960 Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The plot follows two separate but interlinked storylines. The first follows Leslie Cheung’s Yuddy as he moves between a relationship with Maggie Cheung’s quiet Li-Zhen, whose feelings for him he does not reciprocate, and Mimi, a cabaret dancer played by Carina Lau. The second storyline revolves around encounters between Li-Zhen and Andy Lau’s good-natured police officer, Tide, in whom the former confides regarding her unrequited feelings for Yuddy. We see Tide’s alienation and search for meaning when he finds out that the woman who raised him is not his mother, whilst, typically, Li-Zhen and Tide’s hinted romance never quite materialises. The world depicted in Days of Being Wild is one of longing, chance meetings, and unrequited feelings, which is almost unique to Wong Kar-wai and Hong Kong.
Chungking Express (1994)
A cult film and one of the greats of Hong Kong cinema, Quentin Tarantino frequently cites Chungking Express as a huge inspiration.
The plot centres, once again, on two separate but spatially linked storylines – the first revolving around a meeting between an off-duty policeman obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, May, and Brigitte Lin’s iconic blonde-wig-clad drug smuggler. The second plotline depicts the flirtations of another heartbroken cop played by Tony Leung and Faye Wong’s snack bar worker. The plot of Chungking Express is often unconventional and difficult to follow. The film’s point lies more in its symbolism, imagery, and style than its storyline; in its dizzy, whirling shots of Chungking Mansions and the streets of Hong Kong, it captures the frenetic feeling and pace of life in Hong Kong in the build-up to the 1997 handover.
A film about characters killing time and a place in that time, Chungking Express perfectly captures the ephemerality of what Hong Kong is and yet remains hopeful about its future.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, Wong Kar-wai’s sublimely melancholic magnum opus In the Mood for Love follows Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters. They, living in the same building, discover their partners have had an affair with each other. The film carefully follows their ensuing liaisons — the sad glances, long silences, and the conflict between the proximity and distance of their quasi-romance. It is a beautiful film filled with a colour palette of dark reds, greens, browns, and yellows, and each still of Leung and Cheung talking softly in the shadows of 1960s Hong Kong streets would go well in a coffee table hardcover. It is the ultimate film of unfulfilled desires, loneliness, and longing, culminating in its beautifully devastating finale at Angkor Wat.
Each still of Leung and Cheung talking softly in the shadows of 1960s Hong Kong streets would go well in a coffee table hardcover
More than anything, Wong Kar-wai’s films are often dreamy, meandering experiences that evoke the distinctly bittersweet feelings of longing, loneliness, and nostalgia unique to Hong Kong life. They have long been fan favourites but have received particular attention recently following last year’s 4K restorations of seven of his films in Criterion’s ‘World of Wong Kar wai’. The tributes made to Wong in the hit Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Tony Leung’s entrance to the MCU in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings give ample excuse to watch or rewatch the work of the Hong Kong auteur. His films are an excellent entrance into Hong Kong and east Asian cinema.
All of Wong Kar-wai’s work is worth watching, but As Tears go by (1988), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), and 2046 (2004) are all essential, the latter being the last film in his “romance trilogy”. Fruit Chan’s cult favourite Made in Hong Kong (1997) is perfect for fans of Wong’s style, as is Stanley Kwan’s legendary Rouge (1987). For some of Wong’s inspiration, look at the French new wave like the late Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Band of Outsiders (1964), as well as the work of Éric Rohmer.